There have been a whole lot of emotions flying around this fall leading up to and in the aftermath of the mid-term elections in November. Before November 2nd, there was mostly frustration and anger on the Right and fear and resignation on the Left. After the “shellacking” at the polls, another set of emotions kicked in. For the victorious Right, there was euphoria, excitement, and the inevitable righteous smugness. For the defeated Left, there was devastation, grief, and the inevitable despair.
Yet, with the elections several weeks in our rearview mirror and the intensity of emotions having ebbed for most people, there is another emotion that has persisted in me throughout this season of political unrest and upheaval. It is an emotion that, based on my decidedly unscientific poll of people of all political persuasions around the U.S., is shared by those on both sides of the aisle.
What is that emotion, you ask? Disgust, plain and simple. Though I will likely be accused by those on the Right of engaging in sour-grapes sentimentality from one of those citizens on the Left who got royally spanking by the election results, my hope is that I can show that disgust is an emotion that all reasonable (now there’s a hot-button word!) people should feel during these turbulent political times.
First, a brief tutorial on the emotion of disgust. However unpleasant it is to experience, whether smelling rotten garbage, seeing pus from a wound, or hearing a truly distasteful joke (I feel disgust just typing those examples), disgust evolved as an emotion central to our survival. Its primary purpose has been to safeguard us from ingesting contaminated substances.
But, as often happens with our evolutionarily adaptive reactions, disgust can now be elicited by experiences that in no way threaten our physical well being (at least directly), but, nonetheless, have a significant impact on our lives.
There is much to be disgusted about in today’s political climate for members of both parties, with the equivalent of rancid meat, human excrement, and animal innards everywhere. Let me count the ways:
- Disingenuous and corrupt politicians who seem not to care about their constituents.
- Policies and legislation that seem to favor the rich and powerful.
- Digital soapboxes that offer little beyond disinformation and vitriol (you can pick your cable channel poison depending on your political leanings).
- Lack of civility in our political discourse (a topic which I have discussed and felt disgusted about in the past).
- An unwillingness of citizens and politicians alike to find common ground in the name of solutions (however imperfect) that would actually help people.
But the piece de resistance of disgust that I feel is directed at the obscene amounts of money that were spent (and, in my view, wasted) in the Congressional races leading up to November 2nd. In fact, around $4 billion, a new record! California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman alone spent an estimated $160 million of her own money on her campaign…and lost. Good to know that money can’t buy everything. On a side note, the research indicates that only about 11 percent of multi-millionaire, self-funded campaigns result in a victory, so you’d expect they would think twice before throwing good money after bad. But I suppose when you’re that rich, you assume you will always win. And think of all the good that money could have done if it were spent on jobs or education or other worthy causes. Of course, it is a free country and these people can spend their money any way they wish. I’m just saying.
Though the reasons for feeling disgust differ significantly depending on your political views, you would think that those of differing ideologies, but with the shared experience of disgust, would be motivated to find common ground that would alleviate the revolting olfactory onslaught. Unfortunately, that communal disgust seems to actually prevent us from coming together.
Research has shown that feelings of disgust cause people to become more severe in their judgments and hold more negative attitudes toward people who are different than they. According to other research, those who are politically conservative have a higher sensitivity to disgust than do liberals (not getting partisan here; just stating the research).
One theory is that primitive peoples were threatened by rival tribes that could transmit diseases to which they lacked immunity. Today’s disgust toward those with opposing views may be our way of not contracting the diseases of conservatism (if you’re a liberal) and liberalism (if you’re conservative), both of which, from where each group stands, must assuredly lead to a slow and painful death.
I wonder where independents score on the disgust-sensitivity tests. From what I’ve seen, they respond to the aroma coming from whichever party is currently in power because they are the easiest scapegoat and we have to blame someone (other than ourselves) for our problems. Given that independents seem to decide elections these days, the challenge for political candidates is to figure out what causes them to feel the most disgust. If someone can bottle that, they will have future elections in the bag (along with the previously mentioned putrid meat, vomit, and other gross-out substances that may be able to sway elections).
As for getting rid of my disgust, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. There are no signs that the stench emanating from Washington is going to be replaced by the scent of roses in the foreseeable future. I guess my only chance of changing my dominant olfactive stimulation is to stop reading about politics. But then the even harsher stink of ignorance would probably disgust me even more.